It's time to bury RSS

It's time to bury RSS

Summary: RSS fatigue won't be solved by simply rehashing the tired old reader concept. It's time to start applying some proper network effects to RSS.

TOPICS: Browser

When I wrote of the Death of the RSS reader last week, I little realized just how many people have given up on following RSS feeds. Now the slashdot hordes have had their say, it's all too plain that RSS as currently delivered is fatally flawed. Even the attention bunny's stamina wavers at times:

"The folder-by-folder approach requires you to be pretty anal about reading all your feeds and makes you mentally tired if you fall behind. Sorta like email. It’s to the point sometimes that I dread opening up Outlook."

Scoble hasn't given up on his feeds yet — in fact his comment was by way of RSS reading is mired in a metaphor that locks out network effectswelcoming news that the 'father of RSS' Dave Winer is working on a new reader that aggregates incoming feeds into a single flow (known as 'river of news'). But sadly, RSS fatigue won't be solved by simply rehashing the tired old reader concept. It's about time someone got really creative and started applying some proper network effects to RSS.

The problem with RSS readers and aggregators as currently defined is that every single one of them is designed to serve up feeds to individual users. Even a Web 2.0 darling like the web-based reader Rojo, which adds good things like tagging and social networking to the core feed functionality, still fails to leverage the community strengths of the Web.

I find this so frustrating because the better way of aggregating RSS is literally staring everyone in the face. Instead of reading their individual selections of RSS feeds privately, everyone should be encouraged to publish those aggregated feeds on the Web. Not to the extent of infringing the original authors' copyrights of course — the published material should be limited to headlines and perhaps the first couple of lines of text. But the simple act of publishing those aggregations then makes them available to others, and thus makes them amenable to network effects in a way that they never can be if they're kept private.

In a more recent post, Scoble has challenged the RSS skeptics: "You try to read 743 Web sites in a browser. Go ahead and try. I dare you." Yes, Robert, but how about if you published those 743 feeds as an aggregated 'river of news' page on your website? Then not only could you read all those feeds yourself in a familiar format, but all your website visitors would be able to read them too, without having to buy or set up any new software at all (of course, those who wanted extra functionality, or offline reading, would still be able to purchase and install specialized reader software). Now go a bit further, and imagine that you (or a third party) published your aggregated feed as an RSS feed in its own right, so that people who shared your interests could view the same material on their own aggregator page, mixed in with material from other feeds. Here's what I've written elsewhere about the network leverage that could stem from this approach:

"Maybe if this idea caught on, he could slim down his own list of RSS feeds, because surely someone somewhere would start aggregating some of the feeds that he subscribes to, and then he'd be able to subscribe to just one feed in place of half-a-dozen. And you know, with that step, we've just started to venture into the realms of network leverage, because the expert he's relying on to aggregate those feeds for him would automatically add new feeds as they became available, so [Robert] would be adding valuable new feeds without even having to lift a finger."

I wrote that in June 2002 (the original used Jon Udell as the example expert), and yet three years later, RSS reading remains stubbornly mired in a client-server, cubicled-user metaphor that locks out any scope for the kind of network effects that we're supposed to be reaping in the Web 2.0 era. The best thing of all about the web page aggregator concept is that it means users don't have to bother with any special RSS software at all. They just point-and-click at feed buttons and build a feed page.

So when I say it's time to bury RSS, what I mean is, keep using it, but keep it buried it in the infrastructure. It's a raw API feed, the lowest of the three layers of Web 3.0. It's time to build some higher-level applications that help users harness it instead of lumbering them with a new crop of do-it-yourself tools that force them to tinker directly with the raw, unfiltered material. Most of them just can't be bothered — and who can blame them? 

Topic: Browser

Phil Wainewright

About Phil Wainewright

Since 1998, Phil Wainewright has been a thought leader in cloud computing as a blogger, analyst and consultant.

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Information overload

    It doesn't matter how you slice or dice it - 743 news feeds every day is just too much to digest. Just what the heck are you trying to do here? Maybe if you had the input jack in your neck that you could plug yourself in DIRECTLY to the news feed - you could handle that kind of bandwidth - but WHAT would you DO with that information? The "thirst for knowledge" becomes the "gurgle, gurgle, glub, glub" of information drowning.

    Maybe it can't be done! Have you ever considered that? The limiting factor in the information highway is the human. Just how much can/should they take? As much as THEY can! Which means that engineering a solution for *everyone* just won't work.
    Roger Ramjet
    • The leveraging factor is the community

      > The limiting factor in the information highway is the human.

      Yes, so all the more reason to leverage some network effects here, so that those 743 feeds can get collectively filtered down to something more manageable. Instead of just Scoble reading them, put them on his website and measure which ones people click through the most, then publish a rolling top ten. Why not add in a reputation measure too - when Scoble clicks through his 'vote' gets a higher weight than other visitors. This seems like a very effective way of starting to gather 'attention metrics'.
      The point I'm making here is that it's only when you pass each private selection of feeds back out to the Web that you can start to leverage network effects and build applications that help everyone control their information overload.
      phil wainewright
      • Why?

        "Instead of just Scoble reading them, put them on his website and measure which ones people click through the most, then publish a rolling top ten."

        To what end? What do I gain from knowing what RSS feeds others (even Scoble) are viewing? How does that affect what I'm interested in? My interests may overlap somewhat with others', but no two people have exactly the same interests, and why should I limit what I view based on what others view? Should blogging be limited only to those that attract "most" people?

        I don't see the point. It smacks of "following the herd" instead of thinking for oneself.

        Carl Rapson
        • The US News

          of RSS feeds . . . ;)

          As I look at the ZDNet top ten, I am reminded that Paris Hilton was in it. That kind of sums up the relevence of the top ten approach.
          Roger Ramjet
          • Make that USA Today

            . . .
            Roger Ramjet
  • RSS itself isn't the problem

    It's the way most sites and most browsers implement RSS that is the problem. Quite frankly, it's a mess on most sites. I don't need an entire paragraph for a header. And quite frankly, most RSS readers are too bulky for everyday use. Firefox's Live Bookmarks does the best job in my opinion, but even that can be a pain when you've got 20 word headlines.
    Michael Kelly
  • Practical examples bury RSS in just the way you suggest.
  • Edu_RSS Does This

    Why do we have to wait for Dave Winer (or someone else south of the border) to invent this before anyone thinks it has been done?

    I have been doing this - and hundreds of subscribers have been happily reading - with Edu_RSS for several years now. And it hasn't been a secret - code and descriptions have all been available on my website.

    Just yesterday, I released coded for the second generation version of Edu_RSS, which adds numerous community features to the system. You can read about it here.

    You're free to help yourself to a heaping serving of Edu_RSS 0.2 code as well. Enjoy - the future is already here.

    -- Stephen
  • helps a bit

    at inclue! we make a reader for outlook 2003 which has a 4th headline panel, that scrolls through headlines automatically. we are interested in suggestions that may help make this piece of real estate even more valuable for end users.
  • You may want to check out

    It uses the "river of news" style and is a social way of aggregating and subscribing to feeds, based on tags. Take <a href=""></a> for example. It is an aggregation of 8 feeds related to san francisco and users can easily add new feeds that are related to the topic.
  • Reading lists

    I just came across an item that Dave Winer posted in October on Reading Lists for RSS.

    "Reading lists are OPML documents that point to RSS feeds, like most of the OPML documents you find, but instead of subscribing to each feed in the document, the reader or aggregator subscribes to the OPML document itself. When the author of the OPML document adds a feed, the aggregator automatically checks that feed in its next scan, and (key point) when a feed is removed, the aggregator no longer checks that feed. The editor of the OPML file can update all the subscribers by updating the OPML file. Think of it as sort of a mutual fund for subscriptions."

    The Web 2.0 Workgroup started offering its collection of feeds as a Reading List, and Technorati promised to publish Reading Lists alongside its Blog Finder service.

    This is a geeky version of what I've suggested (and probably all the more elegant for that). If someone were to make it easy for non-techies to implement and take advantage of it, then it could fulfil what I've been arguing for.
    phil wainewright